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Since its invention and widespread introduction into the economy some 70 years ago, plastic has become a valuable part of business and daily life. So much so, in fact, that we have created more than 8.3 billion metric tons of it around the world. If we were able to take all of that plastic and turn it into a single grocery bag, it could hold the entire planet. If business continues as usual, 30 years from now projections say we will have produced enough plastic waste to double-bag the Earth.
The problem is that more than 76% of all plastic has ended up as waste, and nearly 50% of the plastic waste we now produce each year is used just once, often only for a few minutes. In the time it takes you to read this article, about 5 million single-use plastic bottles will be discarded. The single-use packaging that we throw away each year represents $100 billion of economic value. That’s a figure worth paying attention to: Recouping those losses and developing solutions to preventing plastic waste more broadly could amount to a trillion-dollar opportunity.
It’s time for members of the C-suite to embrace that opportunity, especially because plastic is more pervasive across our global economy than just about any other manufactured substance. From basic chemicals to high tech, from heavy industry to fast fashion, and from agricultural commodities to lifestyle brands — virtually every industry has plastic as an integral part of its products, supply chain, distribution, and customer interactions. For virtually every business leader, reducing plastic waste represents a strategic business opportunity.
We’ve identified five clear benefits that reducing plastic waste can deliver to businesses, whether your remit is innovation, operations, finance, risk, growth, or brand.
Chief marketing officers know how much brand value can be created or destroyed if a brand is on the right or wrong side of a debate, and they have begun to recognize that focusing on plastic-waste reduction can be a true differentiator. Interestingly, some of the operational solutions for reducing plastic waste can also drive customer stickiness. Selling your product in a beautiful, branded, reusable container comes with the added benefit of the consumer looking to you, and only you, to refill that container. Nestlé has begun piloting a reusable Häagen-Dazs ice cream canister that is delivered to homes. When empty, it can either be sent back to the factory or brought into a Häagen-Dazs retail shop to be refilled.
CMOs should also see a special role for themselves combatting plastic waste, because, ironically, some 60 years ago they were the ones who helped convince American consumers to embrace our “throwaway” plastic culture. Coming out of years of the Great Depression and the shortages of World War II, Americans initially saved plastic containers, even those designed to be disposable. Only after marketers got involved did Americans come to believe that plastic could be used just once and thrown away. Today, marketers can take the lead again, this time by encouraging consumers to make sustainable choices and reduce plastic waste.
Despite the scale of the plastic-waste problem, business leaders should recognize that it is especially well-suited to market-based solutions. Everybody can do their part. Last year, for example, through the Morgan Stanley Plastic Waste Resolution, we made a firm-wide commitment to facilitate the prevention, reduction, and removal of 50 million metric tons of plastic waste from rivers, oceans, landfills, and landscapes by 2030.
We believe that leaders across all industries, and in all different C-suite seats, have a unique ability to turn the tide on plastic waste. Scientific discovery, industrial R&D, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and marketing were responsible for creating plastic, convincing consumers to adopt it, and conditioning those same consumers to throw it away. Now is the time to turn the tide. Leaders who generate innovative ideas and take bold action at every stage of the plastic value chain can use their collective intellect, influence, and business impact not only to capture millions of dollars of value but also solve a problem that urgently needs addressing.
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